What Does It Mean to Be a Man? U of Calgary Students Respond

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How do students feel about manhood and masculinity today?

The Gauntlet asked students at the University of Calgary, “How do masculine ideals affect you?” Here are their answers:

Sean Willett, second-year communications:

I’ve seen the movie Les Miserables twice now, and I cried buckets both times. For those of you who don’t know, Les Miserables is a musical about a bunch of French people singing about how much they love each other—it is probably the least ‘manly’ film anyone could conceive of.

In fact, I’m probably one of the least manly people you will ever meet: I like listening to girly pop songs, I have a massive soft spot for cute animals, I have never come close to being in a fight and I spent high school doing improv instead of playing sports. I’m a terrible man.

But who cares? I don’t think that these traits make me better than any other person with a penis, and I certainly don’t think they make me any worse.

I’m pretty happy with who I am, and I don’t need an artificial label to validate my existence. People should never act a certain way simply because they think it is expected of them—they should just act the way that makes them the most happy.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I need to listen to “I Dreamed a Dream” a few dozen more times.

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Gabriel Gana, first-year philosophy:

I have never been considered a masculine man. Compared to most guys, I look like a hairy hobbit with glasses. Whenever I see this so-called ‘ideal man’ that usually adorn the covers of posters and magazines, I always see a tall, handsome, baby-face whose hair has more product than a girl has makeup on.

But even if this is the prevalent notion of how a man should be, I take comfort in the fact that I seldom paid attention to such a trend. I mean, what happened to the kind of man who took charge, the man who got the job done and the man who is comfortable in his own skin, Viking beard or none? Instead, all I see are pop stars who dress like they don’t even own a mirror and sparkling teen vampires who would make Bram Stoker roll in his grave. It’s not that I am bitter about the way things are, it’s just that prevalent notions may not necessarily hold true. Guys come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and it doesn’t mean we are any less masculine than your average Abercrombie & Finch model.

A man doesn’t need to be photoshop buff to be kind, dashing, courteous and caring. What makes a man a man is his nature, not just his stature.

Batman was first conceptualized as a Byronic hero and continues to be portrayed as one—a hero Lord Macaulay describes as “a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.”

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Sarah Dorchak, fifth-year English and communications studies:

Masculinity has built itself up against femininity—you can’t have one without the other. One label is defined hierarchically lower, yet that label supports and sustains the other. It is no wonder then that feminism appears to threaten masculinity.

Feminism aims to break down the boundaries between traditional masculine and feminine roles, personalities and ways of experiencing the world. And while feminism has been making progress regarding traditional feminine roles, there has been a considerable lack of attention paid to masculine roles.

Comics, and by extension popular culture, are our modern day mythology. Take a look at any popular superhero: the men all have the same broad shoulders, square jaws and steel eyes.

Batman was first conceptualized as a Byronic hero and continues to be portrayed as one—a hero Lord Macaulay describes as “a man proud, moody, cynical, with defiance on his brow, and misery in his heart, a scorner of his kind, implacable in revenge, yet capable of deep and strong affection.” James Bond loves and loses in Casino Royale and in every book and film since he shows no compassionate emotion, just action and sex.

These caricatures of masculinity are just as detrimental to men as the slut or virgin images are to women. And it’s time we feminists started paying attention to these issues. If feminism is about equality, its focus should not solely be on eroding the traditionally feminine roles. It should be about creating an equal playing field where both sexes, regardless of sexuality, race or class, are able to participate in a discussion about tropes, about inequalities, about their individual experiences.

It’s just as important to diversify women’s roles as it is men’s.

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Mark Reynolds, third-year history:

Immaturity, irresponsible and sexist are some of the assumed male characteristics that exist in our society. Surely, we men can live up to these assumptions, like objectifying women that men find physically attractive. However, not all men are like this. Appreciation of beauty is different than sexualizing every woman. Uncertainty of how to be a man does not mean immaturity or irresponsibility. The question of masculinity leads me to wonder how many of those male characteristics are societal assumptions? Do men behave in a certain way because that is how the rest of the population sees us? Or are these the ways we see ourselves?

The most obvious difference I noticed when I left for an exchange in the fall was the departure from the preordained constructions of my personal character. While abroad, I was able to strip away external influences and begin to decipher my own personality, persona and standards. I now understand that I am not subject to generalized standards—I am subject only to my own personal understandings.

For me, masculinity, as understood by my own experiences and as understood in my own generalizations, has developed from restriction to responsibility. It is my responsibility to help change the perception of men and the generalizations of myself. Men are not Homer Simpsons, anti-feminists or sex fiends—we are individuals striving for personal understanding in a confusing world.

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Jeremy Woo, first-year commerce:

“Be a man, Jeremy!” is a phrase that I have heard all too often in my life. I feel that society has expectations of me as a member of male kind—most notably, to be ‘masculine’ in behaviour and personality. However, I question the practicality of some masculine characteristics. Whether as trivial as engaging in a fistfight or as disastrous as participating in war, masculine ideals have blinded mankind from reason and pragmatism.

Society’s expectations of masculinity include defending oneself, one’s family and especially a romantic interest in the form of violent, physical altercations. If a fight does not occur, the males involved are perceived as cowardly, weak or hideously unmanly. In this situation, I’m ashamed that I have backed out of battle, my pride dented, and tail between my legs.

“Be a man, Jeremy. What does your girlfriend think of you when you just stand there, you wimp?” This rather bizarre expectation of aggression is an integral part of masculinity, but in the end has no purpose—no real resolution is found, injuries arise and no progress has been made. This show of manliness is essentially useless.

More troublesome is the advent of war. Whether in the days of Sparta or as recently as the Vietnam War, the ideal, masculine male is expected to fight with pride for his nation and protect his wife, children and country. Societal pressures enforce these unwritten laws of proper masculinity.

“Be a man, Jeremy. Go fight, go kill for killing’s sake. If you do not, you are not a real man.” The ambition to barbarously kill and destroy for the sake of supremacy is blind, partly fueled by powerful masculine expectations that somehow necessitate disastrous, humanity-destructive war. Unfortunately, I am not above the impracticalities of male expectation. I too am somewhat driven by the rules of masculinity.

But perhaps I should say to myself: “Be a man, Jeremy. Be a reasonable, practical man.”

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Sepand Asefi, third-year international relations:

While the conversations surrounding feminism and women’s rights have grown to a successful roar over the past century, the other half of the same discussion has all but been put into the shadows. While traditional masculinity and what it meant to be a man was rooted in the relative description of what a woman isn’t, our post-modern society has redefined the role and meaning of masculinity.

So what does it mean to be a man in this post-modern world? Well, in my opinion, the three points below are a glimpse of what it means to be masculine.

Composure: The ability to be a pillar of strength amidst the chaos of life is perhaps one of the most valuable traits possessed by the ideal man. Day-to-day stressful situations, emotionally-charged moments and unprecedented events all have a way of blockading our sense of rational thought, but by being able to keep your composure and remain unfazed, you’re less likely to act in a regrettable and uncharacteristic manner.

Passion: It’s what allows you to taste the flavours of life—it is the fuel that keeps you going. Passion has been important for men in every time period. The idea of a historical masculine man—like a warrior or knight—has always been comprised of a drive, courage and a cause. A man whose passion drives him to take charge and make change.

Truth: To be truthful takes a certain kind of person, not just in the sense of not telling lies but also acknowledging realities of situations and character. A man must be bold to be able to face and admit these truths, despite any negative reaction that it could bring about. There is an idiom that goes, “The more honest you are about your faults, the more people will think you are perfect.”

To me, masculinity today is a quest towards a set of traits deeply-rooted in long-standing values that, despite changes in our society, still serve as a symbol of virility and the building blocks of a ‘real’ man.

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Sean Sullivan, second-year open studies:

Is there such a thing as a ‘manly’ profession? In a period of promoted equality between the sexes, the politically correct answer is “no.” However, men share the burden of social pressure just as much as women. It is an outdated belief that men should be the protectors, providers and procreators of society but many men are still expected to enrol in subjects that were once the bastions of male knowledge: engineering, science and mathematics. Or, if university isn’t in the budget, the trades, such as carpenter, plumber, welder or electrician. If there is no budget, there’s construction worker, forklift operator and short-order cook. A significant portion of this pressure is economic, following the money as it were.

When I was deciding on which classes to focus on in high school, and, by inference, where I would go in university, my father told me that if I didn’t get a bachelor of science I would never “succeed” after university.

But once I entered university, I recognized very quickly that my chosen major, physics, was not where I wanted to be—though not without a swift kick from a female professor, who became a mentor and a friend. Over the course of a decade I progressed through physics, computer science, communications, philosophy, anthropology, psychology and journalism, graduating with that coveted bachelor of science in the process, before tackling the passion I was ignoring all along: English. I’d traversed the spectrum from science towards the field I was warned against, a precarious career in the arts—and potential house-husbandry.

Throughout my academic career, I worked as a contractor to make money, and I met men who followed a disconcerting—to my mind—trend. After high school, some men immediately got a job in construction, made enough money to buy a house, got married and that was that: success. There was never any desire to pursue anything beyond providing for a wife and kids. No joie de vivre, no aspiration.

While women are trumpeting confidence and self-actualization, some men are retreating to the comfort of traditional male roles. I also noticed they drank too much too often. If that is masculinity, I want no part of it.

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Tristan Taylor, fourth-year English:

I study medieval literature. I have a beard. This is all you need to know about me to understand my comprehension of contemporary images of masculinity. In the past few years I have noticed a trend in the portrayal of men, and what a ‘real’ man is—as if to say that there are ‘real’ men and ‘fake’ men, whatever that may mean.

These ‘real’ men appear in commercials, advertising the latest razor—one that now has a keg-tap and 15 blades—implicitly telling me how, if I use this razor, herds of hot women will flock to my side. Perhaps the worst transgressor of this is Axe cologne. Masculinity, it seems, is an image. Anyone can be masculine as long as they use the previous products.

My idea of masculinity definitely stems from my understanding and appreciation of medieval literature in which masculinity is the all-encompassing anachronistic term to explain chivalry, gentility and honour. These three ideas cover almost all traits that a man, that is, a knight, would have.

It’s not having a beard, nor having the razor to shave said beard, but the internal motivations that guide the actions that make the man masculine. Masculinity is opening doors for women, it is keeping your word after making a promise, it is having an honest intention in everything you do.

My point is that pop culture represents the masculine man as an image—as something you can put on. I believe that masculinity stems from the mind, represented through one’s actions.

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Michael Grondin, third-year communications studies:

We are always given labels. These labels dictate how we act and how we live. Labels dictate how we are supposed to treat people, who we are supposed to respect and how. Labels, like being masculine, offer us a pre-determined set of rules, obligations and viewpoints, when, in all fairness, masculinity itself is an abstract, manmade idea.

What is being masculine? How is a man supposed to act? Who is a man supposed to be? The answer is that there is no answer. These labels are just socially constructed ideas, reinforced time and time again by stereotypes and the media. You want to know why patriarchal, homophobic or misogynistic attitudes still exist? Look at the stereotypes provided by these labels.

Yes, I do have male biological characteristics. I do have inherent views on how I am supposed to live my life as a man, but the idea of being a man or a woman in a general way in contemporary society is so outrageously constructed it does not reflect who we are as individuals.

Growing up, I was considered a fag, a pussy, effeminate because I was sensitive, sympathetic and caring to my friends. I was considered unmanly because I was short. I’ve even had people tell me that because of my body hair, I am not masculine. Bullshit.

We cannot keep living with these labels — whether it’s masculine, feminine, black, white, gay, straight, tough, weak, conservative, liberal, smart, stupid — because they are not a true reflection of who we really are. When we give ourselves labels, we get a narrow, one-minded path to walk down without room to breathe or grow.

So what makes me a man? That’s for me to find out.

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Louie Villanueva, first-year English and education:

Traditional views on masculinity have been in decline for some time. Masculinity has become satirized in some respects—the advent of social memes such as the popular Old Spice advertisements portray the ideal man as unrealistic and silly, while certain fashion trends of the last few decades would have been traditionally considered effeminate, such as skinny jeans and earrings. Celebrities such as Justin Bieber promote a different kind of masculinity that some people consider effeminate. At the same time this new type of masculinity appeals to certain people.

However, men shouldn’t care about the labels put on them. The ideal man is subjective. Different people have unique perceptions of the ideal man.

In my social circles, I find strict masculine ideals aren’t taken seriously. No one gets offended if you insult their ‘manhood.’ This relaxed attitude regarding masculinity as a form of identity has lead to a reduction in homophobia. However, there are straight men who see homosexuality as a threat to masculine ideals and their own manhood. Even straight men who possess effeminate traits might be viewed as inferior and as not worthy of manhood. This view is wrong. You shouldn’t associate feminine traits with inferiority, just as women with masculine traits shouldn’t be seem as inferior either.

 

First published in the Gauntlet, the University of Calgary’s independent student newspaper, on Feb. 14, 2013. Reprinted with permission.

Read more on Men and Masculinity on The Good Life.

Image credit: lratz/Flickr

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Comments

  1. While traditional masculinity and what it meant to be a man was rooted in the relative description of what a woman isn’t, our post-modern society has redefined the role and meaning of masculinity.

    Precisely

    Masculinity has built itself up against femininity—you can’t have one without the other. One label is defined hierarchically lower, yet that label supports and sustains the other. It is no wonder then that feminism appears to threaten masculinity.

    However I disagree here.

    Masculinity is defined opposite feminity. What is feminity? Feminity is being, expression, intelligence, beauty, being recognized for what you are, without needing to necessarily apply it.

    The status of Plato for example is an example of ‘being’. He does stuff, but he’s recognized for his status beyond doing anything. So are superstars, celebrities and the British Royal Family. Their existence is recognized as something. Princesses are recognized for being, without doing a thing, no wonder it’s in little girl roles nowadays.

    So masculinity is defined as not-being. Being a conformist, no expression, no emotion, living for others, working for others.

    Any attempt at ‘being’ can be seen as an attempt to shun responsibilities, thus becoming a burden for society. Only the rare outliers are tolerated for this, superstars and such.

    Any working for yourself and you’re “a manchild”, egoist, and going to destroy society. See “The End of Men” and how some think its the end of the world if men “opt out” of being providers for society. If they decide to only provide for themselves. It’s seen as unmasculine because it’s an attempt at ‘being’ and is less ‘doing’ at the same time.

    • I disagree with the 2nd quote in that they aren’t presented as “masculine better, feminine lesser”, but as a “masculine utilitarian/practical, feminine artistic/aesthetic’, the latter is not a sign of being worse, any civilization needs arts and a concept of beauty, lest we become an ant colony or robots.

  2. JustAMan says:

    Kudos to Mr. Asefi for a clear, well-articulated, positive vision of the adult human male.

    Composure. Passion. Truth.

    Now, Mr. Willett, please consider that vision in the context of Les Miserables. Suddenly it doesn’t seem “unmanly” at all, eh? By the by, LesMis was serialized in English translation almost simultaneously with its publication in French, and was an immense hit among the American soldiers, North and South, fighting and dying in the final months of the U.S. Civil War. The Confederates, bastardizing the French title, even took to calling themselves “Lee’s Miserables.”

  3. Wanna be a man? Be whatever the hell you wanna be. There’s no single way to be a man or a woman. Spend less time worrying about being a man, spend more time being YOU.

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